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Rangers face Pudge dilemma

Special to

May 19

By the time its season was 40 games old, the team with the quarter-billion dollar shortstop was 17 games behind the shortstop's former team. The team was waving the white flag on Ken Caminiti, Andres Galarraga and Tim Crabtree and owner Tom Hicks let it be known that he'd like to explore trading Pudge Rodriguez.

Ivan Rodriguez
Ivan Rodriguez's days in Texas could be numbered.
This is not of GM Doug Melvin's doing, although Melvin is under siege by a boss who says he expects the Rangers to contend next year.

So, while Texas likely will look at first baseman Carlos Pena, second baseman Mike Young and possibly even outfielder Kevin Mench before Labor Day, the question of how to rebuild a pitching staff by trading the man who most dominates opposing running games and has his OPS rise every season has sent a lot of minds spinning.

Understand these issues:

1. Pudge, who is signed through 2002 at $8.5M per season, is a 10/5 man beginning on June 2, which necessitates an immediate trade search. If a trade is made after that, Pudge would have to agree to the deal, which means that the team that trades for him likely would have to work out a new contract in the $20 million per year range. Before June 2, a team could deal for Rodriguez and know it has him through 2002 to work on a new contract.

2. This is a battle of the mega-agents, Scott Boras and Jeff Moorad. There are those in Texas who think Boras has Hicks' ear and has suggested the Rangers can't get a pitching staff with two players who make a combined $56 million (where was this thinking when Hicks gave A-Rod the money, knowing where I-Rod stood?). I-Rod signed his current contract because he didn't want to leave Arlington; a deal with the Yankees for Jorge Posada and pitcher Tony Armas was to be announced that afternoon when Pudge walked in and agreed to the deal. That won't happen again.

3. There has long been a concern that all those games Pudge has caught will eventually make him hit the wall. The fact that he's had freak injuries the last two seasons shows how precarious the position can be. Many GMs ask if one wants to have $20 million tied up in someone a foul tip away from the DL. And there is the whole question of the career longevity of catchers. This is what history shows:

  • Johnny Bench. At 29, he reached 1,391 games caught. Caught 107, 126 and 105 games the next three years, and never again knocked in 81 runs.

  • Yogi Berra. Was 32 in '57 when he reached 1,343 games, averaged 88 games caught the next four years.

  • Bill Dickey. At 32, he had caught 1,306 games. Never caught 105 again.

  • Mickey Cochrane. At 32, had caught 1,392 games. Played two more years.

  • Gary Carter. At 31, in 1987, reached 1,400 games caught. Starting in 1985, his home runs went from 32 to 24 to 20 to 11 to two.

  • Carlton Fisk. Had reached the 1,345 games caught level after the '83 season in which he was third in the MVP voting. He went on to hit 37 homers two years later and while he never caught more than 122 games, played until the age of 44.

  • Ted Simmons. In 1980 he had caught 1,429 games at 31. Went to Milwaukee, batted .216 and caught 100 games just once more in his career.

  • Mike Piazza. He will turn 33 in September and will soon pass 1,100 games caught. His heart is unquestioned, but at some point history -- and his knees -- should move one of the great right-handed bats to first base.

    All that said, Pudge may be the exception, no matter how many games he's caught in the Texas heat. (He's nearing 1,300 games caught.) Unlike Piazza and most of those other catchers, Rodriguez's build with his low center of gravity is suited to the grind. His strict in- and offseason workout regimines have kept his legs in superior shape and he has shown no indication of slowing down.

    If the Rangers decide to deal Pudge, what could they get in return?

    Yes, the Dodgers are interested, but they apparently will not give the Rangers both Eric Gagne and Luke Prokopec because that would leave the Dodgers with just four starters and no depth, which is especially dangerous with the medical histories of Darren Dreifort and Andy Ashby and the impending free agency of Chan Ho Park. Would the Rangers take Park in a deal and try to work out a deal with Boras? That may have a better chance. The Yankees, Red Sox, Indians and other teams are curious, mainly under the two-year window scenario. It's even been suggested that next winter Hicks might be interested in Posada and Roger Clemens -- a fellow Longhorn, who could go for 300 wins back home in Texas -- for Rodriguez.

    It apparently is too early to tell if Hicks and Melvin will do anything before June 2 or even the end of the season. Hicks, meanwhile, wants to know why Rick Helling's velocity is down 3-4 mph (he did lead the AL in pitches thrown the two previous seasons), why Doug Davis and Ryan Glynn were sure shots in spring training but haven't produced thus far and why closer Tim Crabtree turned into Jerry Spradlin, which is why Larry Rothschild may be hired as an organizational pitching consultant.

    When Hicks was being fleeced by Boras, he never thought about the consequences. Now, he knows them. Whether or not he understands them, like the entire I-Rod future, is not yet clear.

    A look inside the Red Sox
    On April 25, Brad Radke started in Fenway Park and gave up a two-run homer to Jose Offerman. When Radke next faced the Red Sox this past Thursday, Offerman was riding a 10-game hitting streak. Offerman, however, was not in the starting lineup against Radke.

    "In the American League, you have to score five runs a game to win," says Red Sox GM Dan Duquette -- who agrees with Indians GM John Hart that second base is an offensive position. "In our league, every position is an offensive position," says Duquette. A's general manager Billy Beane also believes in the five-run rule.

    If you look it up, through games of Friday, the Red Sox had scored five runs or more 99 times in the 2000-2001 seasons; only three AL teams had done it less. In those 99 games, the Red Sox were 79-20, .797, a percentage bettered only by the Mariners (102-16, .870) and A's (93-21, .816), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

    Understand the urgency felt by Duquette and his boss, John Harrington. Duquette is in the last year of his contract, has seen an extension worked out with Harrington postponed by legal eagles and, when he called Tommy Lasorda to recommend his cousin Jim for the Dodgers GM job, threw his own name into the ring (which is why Lasorda has told others, "The perfect man for our job is the guy in Boston"). Harrington wants to win it all before the Yawkey name is off the top of the masthead.

    And when Jimy Williams leaves one of his three best hitters out of the lineup against the game's winningest pitcher, much less refuses to play him everyday at second base despite the .212 average of Mike Lansing, it clearly piques the front office. The manager's mantra has been to play everyone, to point to the Red Sox' first-place standing and wait for Nomar Garciaparra's return. But the fact remains that the Yankees, heading into Saturday, are only 1½ games back despite having virtually everything awry, the wild-card leader at that point (Cleveland) was in the AL Central and the Oakland A's have come up on the outside and are only five games behind Boston.

    As for Garciaparra's savior role, Duquette has constantly deflected the pressure from his All-Star shortstop. "Who knows when he'll be back, and how strong his hand will be?" says Duquette. "It's not fair to him to expect him to be the star right away."

    There are growing indications that Duquette is increasingly frustrated by Williams' lineups. Chris Stynes, a notorious streak hitter, got four hits and was on the bench the next day. While Dante Bichette may not have his former power, he did have a 14-game hitting streak, had one 0-fer and was benched in favor of Troy O'Leary, who is in a two-year funk. There are reverberations around the halls on Yawkey Way that Duquette doesn't want this team to cry "early" too late, and that Williams is one bad series in Yankee Stadium from forcing his general manager's hand. It would have been a lot easier had the Expos not won two out of three in Colorado and at home against the Dodgers to save Felipe Alou's job.

    Paxton Crawford, who was sent to the minors along with Tomo Ohka (who was 11th in the AL in ERA at .357 before being demoted) to make room for David Cone and Hipolito Pichardo, told the Providence Journal on Friday, "Up in Boston, they start panicking when they start losing a couple of games."

    True, but Crawford doesn't grasp the urgency caused by a $111 million payroll, a GM at the end of his contract and an owner trying to win before he cashes out. That is an urgency that sitting Jose Offerman against Brad Radke contradicted.

    Fire sale looming in Tampa
    Rays GM Chuck LaMar has called his 29 peers informing them of the Tampa Bay yard sale, sans Ben Grieve, whom LaMar does not plan to trade. The Phillies have some interest in catcher John Flaherty as well as pitcher Bryan Rekar, but may not move too quickly. LaMar would like to trade Flaherty or Mike DiFelice in order to get Toby Hall and his .355 International League batting average up to the majors and behind the plate.

    Thus far, there has been little immediate interest in Fred McGriff, Gerald Williams, who is less than 150 plate appearances from vesting his $4 million 2002 option, and Greg Vaughn. Several teams have been scouting Albie Lopez with great interest while a number of other clubs, including the Red Sox and Blue Jays, are monitoring Wilson Alvarez's comeback. Alvarez is up to 88 mph and will soon begin his minor-league rehab and should be back in the big leagues by July 1. Alvarez is restructuring his current contract, deferring $2M of the $8M he's owed in 2002. At $6M -- less than Steve Trachsel money -- he's more attractive to the team that acquires him.

    In a year in which everything has gone wrong, down to Josh Hamilton being sidelined with a bad back in Double-A, LaMar soon hopes to have Hall, second baseman Brent Abernathy and left-handed pitcher Joe Kennedy up in the majors. By the end of next season, the Rays should have a sub-$20M payroll and a pretty interesting young team with Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Abernathy, Hall, Jason Standridge, Matt White, et al.

    Calling all lefties
    The mere mention of left-handed whets the appetites of the NL Central folks. When the Cardinals were shut down by Omar Daal Friday night, it was a reminder of what most scares Cubs GM Andy MacPhail about St. Louis.

    "They are so dangerous against right-handed pitching with that outfield power that you really want to have left-handers to start against them," says MacPhail.

    Problem is, in a six-team division where the Cards play nearly half their schedule, there is one left-handed starting pitcher -- Pittsburgh's Jimmy Anderson. Oh, there might be a second if Tony La Russa takes Mike Matthews out of the pen and starts him, or if Cards GM Walt Jocketty can't wait any longer to bring up Bud Smith (22-4, 2.24 the last two years, with a 43/9 K/BB ratio this season in Triple-A) from Memphis.

    "What's frustrating is that there doesn't appear that there will be much left-handed pitching on the market this summer," says one NL Central GM.

    David Wells will be, probably after the All-Star break. Colorado will eventually trade Brian Bohanon and Ron Villone. Alvarez is interesting as well. Some feel that the Giants might consider trading Shawn Estes, another potential free agent, once he comes off the DL.

    "You look at Jim Edmonds and realize J.D. Drew (1.141 OPS into the weekend) might be better than Edmonds and on his way to a 40-homer season," says the GM, "and you realize you'd better have left-handers to stop them. Of course, come July, if they have (Albert) Pujols and (Mark) McGwire together, they will be really scary."

    News and notes
  • It may be an offensive era, but the Angels, Yankees, A's, Mets, Braves, Mariners and Expos are among the teams scouring the net for a bat. In the case of the Braves, they want a pure hitter, which is why they turned down Fred McGriff and are more interested in the Wil Cordero, Dmitri Young types.

    The Mets found the Tigers aren't ready to move Tony Clark, and with a badly depleted farm system have to decide what they need most -- a bat or a pitcher. As Joel Sherman of the New York Post pointed out, in their first 39 games in 2000, the Mets scored two or fewer runs 13 times and were 5-8, while this year they did it 18 times and were 2-16, more of a reflection on dreadful starting pitching than the dead air of their infield.

  • The Orioles continue to shop Sidney Ponson for a third baseman who can put the Cal Ripken situation to bed. They'd have done Ponson for Fernando Tatis, but Tatis got hurt.

  • The reason the Reds offered Pokey Reese for Alfonso Soriano, Rafael Furcal and Neifi Perez and were turned down in every case was that they tried to get Reese signed to a four-year, $21-million deal, but he's looking for $7-10M a year.

  • And when Sean Casey gets around to looking for $10M a year, what will small-market Cincinnati do?

  • The Yankees have had Gene Michael in Montreal looking at Ugueth Urbina. The Yanks need a bat, but they can't continue using Mike Stanton at his current pace. Going into the weekend, Stanton was on a 79-appearance, 98-inning pace; he was 69 appearances/68 IP last season. "We just need Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and David Justice up to norm," says GM Brian Cashman. Jeter's legs still aren't right, as evidenced by his inconsistent, floppy defense.

  • The Indians continue to shop for a young center fielder who next year will replace Kenny Lofton. In fact, with Lofton down, when Jolbert Cabrera turned his ankle Thurday they were worried they had no center fielder, and would love to get Peter Bergeron, Milton Bradley or someone right now. Here's a temporary suggestion: Calvin Murray of the Giants.

  • The Cardinals and Cubs took long looks at Vinny Castilla and passed. Of course, he made his debut in Wrigley for the Astros, homered and was the hero. The Astros were afraid that Chris Truby was being mentally buried, and don't want to rush Morgan Ensberg, their power-hitting prospect at Triple-A New Orleans. "Ensberg can hit the fastball and hit it a long way," says one scout.

  • Speaking of hitting a fastball a long way, one of the Red Sox players Duquette gets a lot of calls on is Izzy Alcantara, who is hitting .321 with a 1.064 OPS for Triple-A Pawtucket. Duquette last week was trying to garner interest in several veterans -- O'Leary, Rich Garces, Pichardo -- but turned down at least two inquiries into Alcantara.

  • The Blue Jays are confident that Vernon Wells is ready, so they are shopping Jose Cruz Jr. for a frontline starting pitcher. They'll discuss Raul Mondesi, but it would have to be a big-time pitcher, and there don't seem to be any of those out there.

    Definitely Sammy
    Ah, come on. Do the Cubs miss Mark Grace? The man played very hard there, but everyone in the front office knows he and Sammy Sosa were not going to co-exist, and Grace had to go when he did because they didn't want Hee Seop Choi coming into Wrigley as the man who immediately replaced Grace. As Sosa hit homer No. 400 this week, the focus should be on him, not Grace.

    Sosa is the eighth youngest player ever to hit 400 homers (source: Baseball Immortals); the younger seven are all in the Hall of Fame other than Ken Griffey Jr. Sosa is a 32-year-old man who had hit 179 homers over the last three years, had knocked in 100 runs six straight years (averaging 129) and has improved as a hitter from the days of a kid who in 1990-91-92 batted .233, .203, .260 with 15, 10 and eight homers and 33/150, 14/98 and 19/63 BB/K ratios. Oh yes. When Grace arrived in Wrigley this week, Sosa was third in the league in pitches per at-bat, 4.2.

    Why was there ever a question of who should stay and who shoudl go?

    "Mad Cow Craze"
    This e-mail has circulated around Piitsburgh, titled "Mad Cow Disease; Mad Cam Disease!!"

      "Doctors and scientists uncovered a new disease spreading wildly thru the city of Pittsburgh. It's been suspected for some time now but finally confirmed and scientifically proven that whoever Cam Bonifay acquires, they seem to lose their general motor skills and their careers seems to spiral downhill!!!!!! ( Doug Strange, Pete Schourek, Brant Brown, Bruce Aven, Derek Bell, Pat Meares, etc. ). What scientists are still trying to work on is trying to find a cure for this horrible disease. Some experts conducted a very controversial experiment the last two years. The last ditch effort was trying to 'get rid' of the disease by passing it down to another player, hoping it would 'cure' the person that had the disease and pass it on to the person leaving the organization. Cam Bonifay reluctantly gave in, realizing we are at the end of the road and nowhere else to go. The experiment started off like this:

      Traded Jon Lieber for Brant Brown. (Brant Brown was the victim of the first. Ampting to cure Brant Brown, we traded him for Bruce Aven. Yes, Bruce Aven contacted the disease. Bruce Aven traded for Randy Galvez. Randy Galvez just confirmed with the disease. The disease is in the last stages with Brant Brown and Bruce Aven. They are no longer in baseball.

      Right now, the confirmed reports are Derek Bell and Pat Meares are current members that have the disease. Rumor has it that some suspect Enrique Wilson has contacted the disease."

    Now Kris Benson is likely done for the year. Jason Schmidt is throwing well since he came back, but he is a free agent at the end of the year and likely has to be traded at the end of July. It's easy to beat on Cam Bonifay, but his manager, Lloyd McClendon, and the people who work for him have remained loyal. But Bonifay has told other GMs he knows he's in big trouble, since the closest the Bucs came to .500 was the first year of the Five Year Plan (79-83), and this is the fifth year.

    This and that
  • Dan Duquette's never-ending search for left-handed pitching has seen Rafael Roque, Alan McDill, Sang Lee, Bill Pulsipher, Bryan Ward, Andy Hazlett, Jesus Pena, Trever Miller and Darin Ebert through their system in Pawtucket along with Double A's Trenton's Casey Fossum and reliever Corey Spencer, a non-drafted lefty reliever who has been very effective.

    "Roque might help us, he's pitched well," says Duquette of Milwaukee's 1999 Opening Day starter, who is 4-1 for Pawtucket.

    Actually, Boston's farm system is coming back in terms of pitching. Left-hander Greg Montalbano (4-1), Korean lefty Byeong Hak An (1.76 ERA) and right-hander Brad Baker (3-2, 2.51) could move from Class A Sarasota to Trenton by August, as could Mexican left-hander Jorge de la Rosa (0.70 ERA).

    Class A Augusta has an entire rotation of prospects: right-hander Seung Song (2-0, 1.36), lefty Mauricio Lara, 6-5 left-hander Rich Rundles (4-2, 1.63), lefty Luis Peres and righty Matt Thompson. In addition, 2000 draftee Brian Adams, out of Old Dominion, is 6-1 for Augusta and reliever Felix Villegas has the best radar readings of them all.

  • How unpredictable is pitching? Jason Middlebrook was considered one of the 3-5 best prospects in the country coming out of high school, went to Stanford, hurt his arm, got signed by the Padres for good money and now, at 25, is throwing in the mid-90s for Mobile (Double-A). He is 3-0 and has allowed just seven earned runs in 48 2/3 IP with eight walks and 47 strikeouts. Last season, he was 5-13, 6.15 at Mobile.

  • That's like scouting in the Northeast. In 1999, scouts went in to Bishop Hendricken High School in Rhode Island to see a pitcher named Jason Henderson, who eventually was drafted in the 21st round. The No. 8 hitter on that team was a junior outfielder named Rocco Baldelli, who the next year was the sixth pick in the entire draft by Tampa Bay and is one of the Rays' best prospects.

  • Matt Harrington, who was the seventh pick in the draft last season and turned down $3 million from the Rockies, made his Northern League debut for St. Paul Thursday night. In two innings of work, he threw 23 pitches and struck out three batters. Harrington will make two more starts before the June 5 draft.

  • And to think the reason Marty Cordova made Cleveland's Opening Day roster was because of Travis Fryman's injury.

  • Joe Torre compares Barry Zito's curveball to that of Sandy Koufax in the way it seems to back up as it arcs down across the plate.

  • From Mets pitching coach Charlie Hough: "Tim Wakefield fascinates me and all knuckleballers. There are times, like right now, when he might be the best of all time. There are other times when he's been one of the worst. But he sure is one of the most versatile and valuable."

    "Wakefield is one of the most valuable pitchers in the game," says one scout. "He's 34? He'll pitch into his 40s. Remember, unlike the Niekros, Tom Candiotti and all the other knuckleballers, Wakefield converted straight from first base to pitching and had no pitching background to fall back on. That's why I think he's about to enter his prime. He's finally learning how to fall back when things go wrong. And the strike zone doesn't hurt, either."

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  • Dibble: Trade Pudge? How could they?

    Gammons: column archive

     How much longer will Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez be with the Rangers? ESPN's Peter Gammons weighs in.
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